Why Tribal Colleges Matter: Our Response to The Hechinger Report

Dec 16, 2014 | Blog


Why Tribal Colleges Matter: Our Response to The Hechinger Report

December 16, 2014

Cheryl Crazy Bull, President and CEO of the American Indian College Fund, wrote a response to both The Hechinger Report and The Atlantic in regard to an article both magazines published by the writer, Sarah Butrymowicz, which stated that tribal colleges were a poor return on taxpayer money. The College Fund presents the full statistics and socioeconomic details to support why tribal colleges are not only important in the lives of Native students, but are also making a tremendous impact.

In regard to the article “Tribal colleges give poor return on more than $100 million a year in federal money” in the November 26, 2014 issue of The Hechinger Report which also ran in The Atlantic under the title “The Failure of Tribal Schools, Sarah Butrymowicz misses several salient points about the challenges facing tribal colleges (TCUs) and their students concerning the colleges’ mission to give—and their students’ goal to earn—a higher education. We appreciate the importance of analyzing data as it pertains to higher education given the challenges faced in this country when addressing student completion and the cost of higher education. But as with all analysis, context is the most critical basis for any examination.

Butrymowicz looks at the need for TCU students to receive remedial education when entering college, as well as their graduation rates, but she touches only lightly on the underlying reasons for this. The answer is not simple, but it is tied to socioeconomics. Poverty and its attendant social issues are what prevent so many Native students from entering a college or university, let alone graduating. This nation’s TCUs have been remarkably successful in helping students overcome incredible barriers to entering college and have over time consistently helped students to achieve their educational goals and attain successful employment.

TCUs are able to achieve this despite the roadblocks that prevent Native Americans from entering a college or university, which are well in place before students graduate from high school. According to the Fact Sheet issued by the White House on December 3, 2014 for the sixth annual White House Tribal Nations Conference, in poor reservation communities nearly half of Native American people (42 percent) are under the age of 24; more than one-third of Native children live in poverty; and Native youth have the lowest high school graduation rate of students across all schools. Last June President Obama visited the Standing Rock Sioux Tribal Nation in North and South Dakota (also home of the TCU Sitting Bull College), spurring him to unveil initiatives this week to help young Native Americans and the education system serving them. The White House said they are in a “state of emergency” and the educational, socioeconomic, health and other issues facing young Native people are “nothing short of an academic crisis.”

In the December 3 issue of The Washington Post, U.S. Department of Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said the current status of education and poverty impacting Native Americans is unacceptable. Yet Jewell added that the political arena, its funding constraints, and the lack of budget for the coming year makes it difficult to say if the $2.6 billion budget the Obama administration requested for Indian affairs to address the issues of endemic poverty and substandard education will be available.

The results of that substandard education and poverty that Jewell refers to include low academic readiness (74 percent of students require remedial math instruction and 50 percent require remedial reading or writing). This can be traced to a lack of modern services in schools and Native communities, including lack of college-prep track courses, inadequate funding for Title III student support services, and the lack or scarcity of college counselors and 21st century counseling programs in Native high schools. Tribal colleges counter that by working to get their students performing. They provide students with the tutoring, mentoring, and additional coursework they need to succeed at the college level.

College tuition costs combined with a low income are also a barrier to higher education attainment, perpetuating the inequity when it comes to Native Americans completing a certificate program or earning a college degree. According to the American Community Survey 2013, in 2013 inflation-adjusted dollars, the average per capita income of an American Indian or Alaska Native is $16,777, with 28.9% living below poverty (poverty figures are often much higher on reservations). According to the American Indian Higher Education Consortium (AIHEC), the average cost of a TCU education was $14,566 for 2013-14. Looking at these figures, it is clear that for most Native students the possibility of earning an associate’s or bachelor’s degree without financial assistance is a distant dream. Any interruption of aid or occurrence that to most people would be a bump in the road, such as a car repair or family emergency, can force Native students to give up plans of entering college or leave school never to return, making their dream of a higher education unobtainable. Data from the American Indian College Fund, the nation’s largest provider of scholarships for American Indian and Alaska Native students, shows that only 1 in 20 of our scholarship applicants can afford to attend college without financial assistance, reinforcing the financial need of Native American students.

Unemployment is also a major challenge in tribal communities. According to the U.S. Department of Interior in a study using statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau, in several states (including Arizona, Minnesota, Montana, New Mexico, North Dakota, and South Dakota, where there are large populations of Native Americans and many TCUs are located) data shows that less than 50% of Native Americans are working who are ages 16 and older and who are living in or near tribal areas of federally recognized tribes.

Participation in the federal Pell Grant program is another way to gauge student need. According to The College Board, the national average for all students receiving Pell Grants at all schools in academic year 2012-13 was 36%. This compares to AIHEC data that shows Pell Grant recipients at TCUs are nearly 80% of the student population. With the maximum Pell Grant amount per academic year at $5,645 and an average cost of a TCU education at $14,566, this leaves an average of $8,921 of unmet financial need for TCU students. Yet only two TCUs participate in the federal student loan program, so many students cannot attend without additional financial assistance.

Native Americans must overcome other challenges to accessing a higher education and succeeding once they are in school. These issues include long commutes (the average commute for a TCU student is 30-100 miles one way, and there is little or no public transportation available in remote reservation areas—requiring impoverished students to have access to a vehicle); a large number of first-generation students at TCUs (59% of all students and 52% of first-time entering students are first-generation students—AIHEC data); and social issues including self-esteem issues and high rates of suicide on reservations due to unresolved historical trauma. Suicide is the second-leading cause of death amongst Native Americans ages 15-24, according to federal statistics.

These are the barriers faced by both Native Americans seeking a higher education and the TCUs whose mission it is to provide it. The good news is Native communities and Native students clearly value a higher education and TCUs are heavily invested in and dedicated to the students and communities they serve. Yes, TCUs are the most poorly funded institutions of higher learning in the United States compared to Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and state land-grant institutions, as Butrymowicz illustrates. She notes that current TCU funding per student is $5,850 per student compared to federal authorization to fund at $8,000 per student (which compares to the average of $20,000 per student that Howard University, a historically black college, receives per student). Despite this, TCUs write off an average of $100,000 in tuition costs annually for their students—making do with less than their educational counterparts to keep their doors open for the communities they serve. And despite the overwhelming financial obstacles to obtaining a higher education, Native student enrollment has grown by 23% over the past five years according to AIHEC, as more students see a higher education as a path to self-sufficiency, a better life, and a way to help their communities.

TCU students, once they overcome these challenges to enter college, contribute positively to the socioeconomic situation of their states and tribal college communities along with the schools themselves. According to a study conducted by North Dakota State University, the five tribal colleges located in North Dakota generated more than $142 million of economic impact to the state in Fiscal Year 2012 and employed 815 full-time and 209 part-time workers.

The American Indian College Fund believes that providing additional resources for financial access to a post-secondary education at TCUs and support for TCU programs and initiatives focused on student success is the best way to increase the number of Natives who receive and complete a higher education. These programs must start as early as kindergarten to prepare students for future success through STEM, literacy, leadership, and mentoring programs, to name a few. Programs should also provide access to post-secondary education for students and faculty; and higher education should provide meaningful higher learning opportunities. Finally, all learning opportunities should be paired with support for meaningful employment for Native graduates. As long as we ignore Native students’ unmet educational and financial needs alongside the unique social and historical barriers they face in accessing a higher education—while continuing to evaluate the value of TCUs on the basis of taxpayer benefit rather than the benefit of a higher education to Native students and their communities—Native students will continue to be at a disadvantage.

–Cheryl Crazy Bull, President and CEO
The American Indian College Fund

Marybeth Gasman, Professor of Higher Education at University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education also responded on The Huffington Post with “Not a Full Picture: Evaluating Tribal College Success Using Mainstream Measures.


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